Today on The Kona Edge we chat to Keri Delport who, against all odds, went from facing a life on crutches to competing in and finishing the Ironman World Championships in Kona. This is her incredibly inspiring Ironman story.
BRAD BROWN: Joining us here on The Kona Edge today and it’s so funny cause I chat to athletes from all over the world and this athlete is literally a stone’s throw from where I’m sitting, it’s not often that that happens.
Keri Delport, welcome onto The Kona Edge.
KERI DELPORT: Thanks so much Brad, I’m so excited that you wanted to speak to me.
BRAD BROWN: I’m trying to figure out why we’re actually doing this on Skype because we could have actually done it face to face.
KERI DELPORT: We could have!
BRAD BROWN: It’s ridiculous, but, we’re here now, so let’s chat. Keri, your story is incredible. You’ve raced on the Big Island, you’ve got ambitions to go back and you’re working hard towards that, but you come from a background where you were told that you’re never going to run?
KERI DELPORT: Yes, that’s it, but I have a method of proving people wrong and so far it’s going all right.
BRAD BROWN: It’s working for you! Let’s talk about that story, you’ve got a condition, I struggle to say the word…
KERI DELPORT: I’ve actually got a few conditions. I’ve got Sherman’s Disease, which just means that the vertebrae in my spine are crumbling and it seems to be from tests that are just continuing to crumble and then I’ve got Degenerative Disc Disease, or Disintegrating Disc Disease and that just means that the discs between my vertebrae are also disintegrating, which is a lot of fun! Then, a few years later from that, I was also diagnosed with a heart condition and asthma, so altogether we have a great party!
BRAD BROWN: You’ve overcome some crazy things to get to where you are. You were first diagnosed I think in about 2009, if I’m correct?
KERI DELPORT: In 2008, so in 2007 my legs collapsed underneath me, just getting up from a couch to answer my phone, legs collapsed underneath and I couldn’t stand and then it took me about a year of walking on crutches, I just realised my back couldn’t hold my body up and then it just wasn’t healing, wasn’t healing. At the end of 2007 went to a neuro surgeon who then diagnosed me with the conditions and suggested surgery in 2008, mainly so that I could just walk on my own again.
BRAD BROWN: Keri, that’s incredible, considering what we’re talking about today, we’re talking about racing at the Ironman World Championships, not only did you go through that entire process, but you took up the sport of triathlon, you qualified and you went.
When did you make the decision that, you know what, the doctor’s aren’t right, I am going to walk again and I am going to run again?
The courage to go against all odds
KERI DELPORT: I kind of knew that from the word go. I don’t do well with being told I can’t do something, especially with physical stuff because I’ve always enjoyed sports, so when they said you can’t run, I said, well, what can I do and he said, you can swim. So, I started swimming with just doing doggy paddle in my pool at home and then I kind of eventually ended up in the pool noodle lane at the gym with the old ladies and did that for a while and then I thought, well, if I can swim, I’m sure I can sit on a stationary bike.
So I started doing spinning classes and then thought, well, if I can do a spinning class, I’m sure I could get on the road. I got a mountain bike so my back was more upright and went on the road a little bit and then I kind of figured, well, if I can swim and I can bike, I’m pretty sure I can work towards running. So I built up the running and then thought, fantastic, I can do all three, let’s do triathlon. I entered my first triathlon in December 2008.
BRAD BROWN: And the rest, as they say, is history. Were you pretty active prior to this whole thing and you sort of discovering you’ve got these conditions?
KERI DELPORT: Funny, I did kind of touch rugby and social sports at school, but nothing really individual and then at about age 21 I got into running, but nothing, just like those back of the pack people who like to run and talk and that kind of stuff. I was never really competitive in sports or like this whole new racing and actually performing is quite new to me, I must be completely honest. I’ve just enjoyed sports, but I’ve never been competitive, per se.
BRAD BROWN: It’s one thing entering a triathlon and another thing deciding you’re going to go on and do an Ironman. It’s a massive step up, what drove that decision? You’ve proved the doctors wrong, you can run, but why do you have to go and do an Ironman?
Understanding the meaning of Endurance
KERI DELPORT: The Ironman for me has always been driven by my dad. The end of 2009, December, my dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and he was given three weeks to live. Three months later he was fighting and he passed away at three months and my dad had always been my biggest supporter. He was always the one at all of my races, with his camera, being really proud and my kind of decision to honour him was that if he could fight for three months when they gave him three weeks, then I could fight through a race that potentially would take 17 hours.
He really taught me what endurance means and for me it was just about transferring my own journey of endurance in sports to something that would then honour him. I started just after he passed away, he passed away in the March and in the May, 2010, I started training for Ironman with the hopes of then competing in 2011 and then since then have just become completely and utterly addicted to the race, in every sense of the word. I live, breathe, eat, dream Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: In my experience with chatting to athletes who have qualified, I do think you have to have a degree of obsession about it and a drive to be able to qualify. You went to Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 2011 and did your first Ironman and finished, if my memory serves correctly, you did it in under 13 hours?
KERI DELPORT: Yes, I was 12:49, it’s the one number I’ll never forget actually.
BRAD BROWN: That first one’s pretty special and it’s so funny Keri, cause just chatting, our journey, it’s amazing how the journeys have crossed. I also did my first Ironman in 2011 in South Africa, it’s an incredible experience running down that carpet. Knowing that you’ve put in all the hard work and set the goal, particularly for someone like you who has overcome what you’ve overcome, to achieve that, describe that feeling to me?
KERI DELPORT: I don’t know if you can describe it Brad. All I remember from that was literally, I couldn’t even see running down the red carpet in that year. I was sobbing uncontrollably and my mom had come with that year to support, obviously given the nature of why I was doing the race. I just saw her and I completely broke down into one of those ugly, Oprah Winfrey style cries and then shame, she ended up trying to break through the barricade at the back saying, ‘It’s my daughter, I need to get to her’ and then obviously had her there.
It’s hard to describe that moment, complete euphoria, complete emotion and then just realizing I’d done it and then obviously you stop running and then all the spasms in the world suddenly start attacking you and then from there it’s just going with the flow.
BRAD BROWN: How soon after that finish did you think you wanted to do that again?
KERI DELPORT: Oh, about 2-3 days later, I was like, I love this! That first race, I think it’s funny, that first race, you never quite feel the pain and then I don’t know, I don’t think any race is ever like the first one. I don’t know if you had a similar experience, but I think for me, that’ll always be one of my favourite, most memorable events. I’m still waiting to come down from that euphoria I think, 5/6 years later!
BRAD BROWN: Keri, triathlon is a funny sport because again, it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the world, you’ll do your first one with no real ambitions, you just want to finish it. But when you look at the results afterwards, you look at where you came out in the water, in your age group or off the bike and off the run and you start thinking to yourself, hang on a sec, I could possibly do better.
When did you start getting really ambitious about the sport and thinking, you know what, I could possibly get on a podium and I could possibly qualify for Kona.
The desire to experience the Big Island of Kona
KERI DELPORT: I think, what happened after the first Ironman, is I just decided I wanted to do it again, but leading up to the first one, I’d never had a coach, I did all the training on my own and so I kind of decided then that if I was going to do this properly, I probably should join a coach.
At that stage I had joined some group training sessions with my training day and made a friend there, Robin Woodward, who qualified for Kona the following year and from that point I was like, oh my goodness, there’s this whole other side of Ironman and this Big Island experience and watched her journey leading up there and from there I was like actually, I want that!
I started training towards it more competitively, didn’t really go anywhere, but then in the middle of 2014 I switched over to Dynamic Multi-Sport and my first interview with them or when I met with them was like, I need you to get me to Kona. This is my goal and nothing else and they were like, okay, if you’re prepared to put in the work, then we’ll get you there. True as Bob, the following year was the year I qualified. So, hugely blessed.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say, they said to you if you’re prepared to put in the work it’ll happen. So many people dream of qualifying and going, but that’s what’s holding a lot of people back is the work. It takes a lot of work to be able to qualify and get there.
Training and working are equally demanding
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely, a huge amount of work. I averaged three times a week, I’m getting up at 4:00, the other two work days of the week I’m up at 2:45 to train before I work and then after work I’m training an hour and a half to two hours. And so my days from waking to training/working and then getting home in the evening after training is from 3:00 until 19:30 or 20:00 at night. I get that for a lot of people that’s not always possible, but it’s about how badly you want it, I guess and ja, I was just lucky, I think I just put in the work and it all just went to plan.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about work because that’s one thing a lot of people look at and they look at some age groupers who possibly work for themselves and have pretty successful businesses and they almost train like professional athletes because they’ve got the time and the money to do it –
KERI DELPORT: yes.
BRAD BROWN: You’re not one of those, you work a pretty demanding job, you work for a non-profit organisation, you work with autistic kids, it’s pretty challenging from a mental and physical perspective, the work that you do and then you’ve still got to get the training in on top of that.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely, it’s exhausting. I’m always so jealous of those who have the flexi time, but it’s very tiring. I’ve had moments where you’re kind of sitting, trying to be enthusiastic with a child and all you want to do is lie in the corner and sleep.
Ja, again, it’s knowing that that feeling is short term and it’s going to be so much more worth it when you get onto the start line, knowing that you’ve actually logged the miles that you need to log, put in the hours.
The worst thing I always think is getting into the start line thinking, if only I had done X, Y and Z, so for myself, I don’t miss a session. I don’t ever want to end up with that.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the build up to that race that you did qualify at, and the changes you made to your routine and your training. Were there major things that you changed, obviously with a new coach, or was it minor things that you had to tweak?
Making those changes
KERI DELPORT: No, actually a huge amount of change. For the first time I was working on a program that was completely tailored to me, to my own strengths.
Previously I was training with people who were slightly better athletes than me and I was constantly training out of my comfort zone, but to a point that wasn’t necessarily beneficial to me. I wasn’t ever making the improvements because I was always exhausted, always training at different levels. Where changing coaches, I’m now working at a level that I need to get to reach my own goals and that’s where the benefits have come from.
Just having a scientifically based program, with correct heart rate zones and more recently, correct Power zones etc, made a massive difference.
BRAD BROWN: It’s so interesting you say that Keri. I think a lot of people make that mistake, where they feel, just because they’re putting in however many hours a week, whether it’s 15, or 20 or 25, just because they’re putting in those hours, they almost expect the results, but those hours really need to be thought of.
If you’re going to put in an hour that doesn’t actually account for anything, that there’s no thought behind, it’s pointless putting that hour in.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely, it’s about training smart, not long. I kind of realised, the way my coach described it to me, he said, the problem leading up to that point was that I was training too hard in my easy sessions and too easy in my hard sessions because I was tired and that was really helpful.
Train smarter – not harder
When I originally started training with them, I kind of was saying to my coach, I feel like you need to push me more. I don’t feel like I’m going harder, I’m going too slow, I’m never going to make it and even leading up to the Ironman race this year and last year, I was emailing them a few weeks ahead of time saying, I’m nervous of my bike, I’m not going fast enough on my long weekend rides. I’m going quite slow and I can’t imagine having to hold a pace of over 30km an hour to try to qualify when I’m nowhere near that in my weekend sessions. They were like, just trust it, just trust us and it’s exactly what happened. It’s just training smart.
BRAD BROWN: It’s so funny you use the word ‘trust’ because that’s often also a mistake that a lot of age groupers make, they spend lots of money on coaching and the coach says to them, do X and they go home and question it and in their training sessions, because they’re doubting what the coach has given them, they end up undermining the coach, doing their own thing and wondering why it doesn’t work for them.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely, like a coach is more expensive than Google, but it’s a lot more worthwhile, for sure. I think a lot of people trust Google before they trust actual professions.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, that is the best quote ever! I’m going to be using that, I will credit you, but that is fantastic.
Keri, let’s talk about going into that first race and you’ve done the work now, you line up on the beach knowing that the goal is to qualify, how do you approach that race? Do you go out and do your own thing or do you look at the girls around you and go, okay, cool, I’m going to race this thing from start to finish and make sure I get there?
KERI DELPORT: Funny, it was actually the first race that that’s exactly what I did. Previously I’d always been going for time and so I had a bit of a strategy of, okay, this is the pace I need to swim, this is the pace I need to cycle, this is the pace I need to run and I had a meeting with my coach leading up to that race and they said, no, racing for position is very different to racing for time.
And so it really did become about that, where I sussed out who was in my age group. I was looking at people’s numbers to say, kind of, who is the first girl in my age group and who is the last, so I can recognize those numbers on the course.
I was learning things about poker face, when you’re going past girls, to look as if you’re really strong, meantime inside, your legs feel like they’re about to crumble and just actually racing smartly. Just racing and being very aware of who was around me, how far they were to me.
Ja, standing on the beach, you’re as nervous as all heck, but I kind of felt like a sense of calm, that was going to be my game face and just go till you can’t anymore and then see what happens afterwards.
BRAD BROWN: Was there a time on the course where you realized, you know what, I’ve got this in the bag, I’m going to be going to Kona, or was it a case of, you know what, just hang on for dear life and we’ll worry about the slot allocation the day after?
KERI DELPORT: I knew on the course going into kind of the last 8km, that last stretch where you pass the red carpet heading out towards the university stretch, I had my coach on the side of the road going, you’re in third position, just hold it. You’ve got to hold this pace now if you’re going to make this position.
That was, I was like, oh my word, this is a podium coming, I’ve never had a podium and this is ridiculous, so I got a little shot of adrenalin and managed to. I knew at that stage that if I could hold off the other girls, I could make podium at least, but I, in my head, thought there were only two slots available.
I didn’t know whether Kona was happening or not and so just went to slot allocation the next day to see and then as soon as I found out there were three slots, overs-kanovers, I was just a mess!
BRAD BROWN: It must be an incredible feeling Keri. I sit here with you saying that, I’m full of goose bumps because you’ve worked really hard for this and it’s not just in the buildup to that race, it’s years’ worth of sacrifice and waking up early in the morning and not going out at night.
It must feel amazing to realise that dream, when you get the slot. Obviously there’s still work to come, to get to Kona, but that must be so satisfying.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely, I can’t even describe it. It was literally a dream come true. It’s such a cliché saying, but to realise the journey, it was then that I realised, or started just realizing, hang on, this has been quite a journey to get there. And it was the first time I had a bit of a reflection as to what that journey had been like and acknowledging my back stuff and acknowledging the heart and acknowledging the asthma and just realizing, actually, I had to work flipping hard to get here and it’s now time to celebrate and it’s actually happening.
BRAD BROWN: You know, you’ve inspired so many people here in South Africa and just on this podcast too, globally we’ve got a fairly large international audience too who probably doesn’t know your story, does that come into play, when you’re hurting in a race, knowing that people are really watching you because of what you’ve had to go through to get here?
KERI DELPORT: It’s so funny Brad, it’s one of the things and I was chatting to some friends recently about it. I still struggle to get my head around the fact that people know who I am. It still doesn’t feel like that and so when I see people commenting on stuff I’m like, oh, it blows me away, it’s the most incredibly humbling experience ever.
Initially I’d kind of, ja, I don’t know, I can’t even describe it for you. For me it’s incredibly humbling, I must be honest, I don’t really think about it when I’m racing too much, but then I’m always blown over afterwards when I kind of connect with people and realise people have been following you.
You kind of forget in the race that there are people who are actually watching you doing what you’re doing. I still, in my head, feel like, it’s just little old me racing and it’s just my race and no one is really that interested and then to find out afterwards that actually people are. I’m still trying to get my head around that, I haven’t quite, ja, I haven’t quite gotten used to that yet, I must be honest.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about Kona itself and the journey to get to the Big Island and the work that you had to put in. Did you change much in the build up to Kona last year?
KERI DELPORT: I just worked harder. I think some of the stuff I probably added was trying to introduce heat training on a very amateur level, but if anything, I just kind of did the training I had done leading up to the Ironman race. But added, I’m going to use the term very tentatively, because of the No Doping, but I’m going to say, I did my training on steroids, if that makes sense. I say that tentatively, no, I’m not on any drugs, but just amplified what I’d already been doing, focused more on what I wanted to do and just wanting to get there.
Ja, so lots of training sessions when it’s been pouring outside, I had a humidifier and a heater on three bars in front of my bike, trying to get used to what it might feel like, kind of cycling at 30 degrees and I can tell you from that, that is no comparison to what it’s actually like there! I thought I was so prepared in heat training and I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into.
BRAD BROWN: Which is quite funny Keri because I think a lot of people listening to this podcast will say, hey, but you’re from Africa, it’s hot in Africa. Yes, it does get hot, but you had to train through our winter, which in Cape Town is not at the best of times, there’s lots of rain, it’s very wet.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely –
BRAD BROWN: Ironman South Africa is very early in the season as well, so it’s very different to qualifying in Europe and going across to Kona, as opposed to qualifying here and having to train.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely and let me tell you, Cape Town heat and Kona heat can’t be compared. You get off the plane in Kona and the heat just smacks you like a child whose candy you’ve stolen.
It is ridiculous! It’s just like instant sweat machine.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about arriving on that Big Island, I think every age grouper I’ve spoken to was well, they’ve mentioned that you get there and you think to yourself, how did I end up here because it is racing snake central.
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely! When I first got off the plane I hadn’t yet seen the athletes, but my first thought was just palm trees everywhere and I suddenly became incredibly excited about palm trees because there were palm trees where they were meant to be, not kind of alien in Africa.
I kind of got off with that and then suddenly you go and collect your bike and then you have a look at everyone around you and suddenly feel incredibly small when you see the ripped athletes standing around, looking somewhat casual, but with a little bit of nervous energy around. It was an incredible experience.
BRAD BROWN: Did you get swept up in all the side shows? It’s easy to get carried away, but did you kind of do everything that was there to do, the Underpants Run, everything, was that part of the whole deal?
KERI DELPORT: Absolutely! My coach forbid me from doing the Underpants Run, and you can’t not do the Underpants Run, it’s like a legendary Kona experience.
I did the Hualālai swim which is the Saturday before, that’s kind of like basically a swim along the Ironman course, I did that the Saturday. On the Sunday I had a long run on my program, so I entered one of their races that they had going cause I figured it would be nice to run with people.
On the Tuesday we had the Underpants Run, Parade of Nations, I mean you have to. I think if you make it to Kona, it actually stops becoming about the race and becomes about the whole experience of being there, for most of us, that experience may come once.
BRAD BROWN: You make an interesting point there Keri and I wanted to ask you that. You went into Ironman South Africa chasing a Kona slot, you’ve worked hard. I say hard, if not harder for your Kona race than you did for Ironman South Africa, how do you approach the race in Kona? Do you go there with ambition or do you go there, you know what, I’m here, it’s the best athletes in the world, I just want to finish this thing and see how I go?
Just soak up the experience
KERI DELPORT: I think, initially when I started training I was like, ah, Kona, it would be nice to make a top ten and then as I learnt more about what it entails I was like, ah, maybe I’ll make the top twenty. And then as I got there on race day I was like, you know what, let me just finish! This race is just about finishing.
The conditions of the race are so tough, I kind of went into the start of the race thinking, maybe, let me see what I can give and as the race went on and the heat just, we had 49 degree heat that day, my system became like, let me just finish this race and take in every moment of it. Once that pressure is taken off, then you just soak it all in.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s chat about your race itself, how did you, from a performance perspective, tell me how it went?
KERI DELPORT: From a personal performance perspective, horrific. It didn’t go according to plan at all and just from an enjoyment perspective, fantastic.
The swim was probably the most aggressive swim I’ve ever done. A few hundred meters into the start of the swim I thought I was going to drown. I had people pushing me down, people grabbing ankles and we always hear about people swimming over you like crocodiles, but Kona was the first time I’ve actually experienced that. And I was like oh, good grief, I’ve made it all the way to Hawaii and this is where I’m going to die, literally panicked.
Then just started focusing on trying to find gaps through people to swim, so did little surges, just to try and get away from some of the little clumps, groups of people, got onto the bike and thought we were flying down the Queen K highway, or the first, the Kuakini Highway and then onto the Queen K and got all up to Harvey and then turned around and realised we’d been flying cause we had the wind at our backs.
That then became a really hard 90km back into Kona town and then just the run was a nightmare. Shame, in transition, the volunteers, for anyone going as well, the volunteers are incredible, unbelievable, but the one volunteer was so helpful and poured out all of my stuff from my bike to run transition and within that was my asthma pump that I knew I needed for the run, given the heat. The volunteer next to her had packed my asthma pump into someone else’s bag thinking it was theirs and so spent 10 minute in transition looking for that, couldn’t find it, ended up going into the run without it and the run is just hot, hot, hot, hot, like uncomfortably hot, hot to breathe, ja, it’s hectic. That was just a nightmare, beautiful, but physically incredibly tough.
BRAD BROWN: But you want to go back?
KERI DELPORT: I do, absolutely! I’ve got a bone to pick with that race. I realised when I finished, that wasn’t all I had to give, so on a race perspective, I want to go back, just to give it what I’ve got. And just as an experience, you know, Kona does something spiritual to you, you feel it as soon as you get off the plane. There’s an underlying spirit in that place that I don’t think has to necessarily do with Ironman, per se. I think it has to do with the island and the people who are friendly beyond measure and just the general culture.
So experiencing that and being able to swim in what feels like a scene from Finding Nemo, just to be back there as a whole would be incredible. I want to go back to re-do that race and try again and just experience the whole island again.
BRAD BROWN: I saw this past weekend too, you’ve entered your next Ironman, you did Ironman South Africa in April in 2016, but you’re going to Florida in the US.
KERI DELPORT: I am, so blessed. My coach came on board when he realised I hadn’t qualified for Kona and said, choose a B race and let’s see if we can try and use that to try and qualify you. My hope is to race in Florida in November to try and get a slot there and if that goes according to plan, then to race South Africa next year as a training race leading up for Kona, which sounds incredibly fancy for the likes of me, but I’m hoping for, I’ve done some chatting to my coaches and time to just work my butt off towards Florida and see if I can take an hour off my time.
BRAD BROWN: I love that.
KERI DELPORT: It can happen.
BRAD BROWN: Keri, best of luck training through another Cape Town winter, I’m not sure if I will see you out there, I’m still in two minds whether I want to train through winter or not.
KERI DELPORT: Come on, do it, you know it’ll be worth it in the end!
BRAD BROWN: Give me a week to decide, we’ll see how we go.
KERI DELPORT: Ja, get over your Ironman recovery first.
BRAD BROWN: Exactly. Keri, thank you so much for joining us on The Kona Edge today, I’m looking forward to getting you back on to talk a little bit about the individual disciplines and what you’ve done on each of those to get better, but we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time today, much appreciated.
KERI DELPORT: Thanks so much Brad, it’s great talking to you.